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Staff Perspective: Resilience in Military Couples

Staff Perspective: Resilience in Military Couples

Dr. Marjorie Weinstock

Periodically, I like to scan the literature to see if there have been any new articles related to military families and couples. Recently I ran across an article by Dr. Pflieger and colleagues (2019) focused on the strengths of military couples, and I was intrigued to learn more – if only because most research focuses on challenges that these families need to overcome.

The aim of this study was to look at patterns of strengths in military couples using data from the Millennium Cohort Family Study. The Millennium Cohort Family Study is a large prospective evaluation of the health and well-being of military Service members and their families that was initiated in 2011. (If you are interested in learning more about Millennium Cohort Family Study, see Crum-Cianflone et al. for a comprehensive description.) The sample for this study included 9,642 dyads and was representative of couples with two-to-five years of service across all military branches.

Resilience has become an important topic in the military family literature, and the authors of this study exemplify this with their use of Froma Walsh’s family resilience theory to operationalize strengths in military couples. According to this theory, there are three processes that are key to family resilience: 1) a family’s shared belief system; 2) organizational patterns; and 3) communication. In this particular study, a couple’s belief system included their sense of mastery over life, their ability to maintain a positive outlook, and their sense of spirituality; organizational patterns were represented by their ability to be adaptive and maintain social support; and communication encompassed problem-solving skills, the ability to express emotions, and engagement in collaborative decision-making.

Pflieger et al. (2019) found five patterns of strengths in couples. For the majority of military couples (58.4%), both the Service member and the spouse were high across all indicators of strengths. In about one third of the couples, one member of the couple was doing better than the other (33.6%), and in only a small percentage (5.1%) were both partners low on all indicators. Unexpectedly, they also found a fifth pattern of strengths where couples had moderate levels of shared beliefs and social support but very low family communication (2.9%).

The authors also looked at sociodemographic and military correlates of these patterns, which I found to be particularly interesting:

  • They found that higher spouse education level and Service member rank consistently differentiated couples who were both high on strengths from the other four profiles.
  • Additionally, they found that Service members’ combat experiences were related to low strength profiles for both the Service member and the military spouse, indicating that combat experience can have an impact not only on a Service member directly, but on their families as well.
  • Another interesting finding was that while Service members’ separation from home for military duties was associated with high self-mastery, a positive outlook, and social support for the Service member, it was also associated with low family communication – highlighting the importance of focusing on enhancing communication skills with this population.
  • Additionally, Service members and spouses with poorer mental health, lower marital quality, and lower marital satisfaction were more likely to exhibit low strength profiles.

The authors cite the fact that the sample used in this study consists primarily of young military couples as a strength (in contrast to previous research that has frequently focused on Service members later in their military career), noting that the findings are particularly generalizable to junior military personnel and their spouses. Since we know that close to half of the active duty military force is under the age of 26, and that military couples tend to marry younger than their civilian counterparts, this research can help provide us some clues as to where to focus our attention in building resilience in these young military couples.

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Marjorie Weinstock, Ph.D., is a Senior Military Behavioral Health Psychologist for the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences at Bethesda, Maryland.

References:

Crum-Cianflone, N. F., Fairbank, J. A., Marmar, C. R., & Schlenger, W. (2014). The Millennium
cohort family study: A prospective evaluation of the health and well-being of military
service members and their families. International Journal of Methods and Psychiatric
Research, 23, 320–330. https://doi.org/10.1002/mpr.1446

Pflieger, J. C., Porter, B., Carballo, C. E., Stander, V. A., & Corry, N. H. (2019). Patterns of
strengths in U.S. military couples. Journal of Child and Family Studies.
https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-019-01593-4

Walsh, F. (2006). Strengthening family resilience (2nd ed). Guilford Press.

Staff Perspective: Resilience in Military Couples | Center for Deployment Psychology

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